You’ve probably seen headlines over the weekend that state coconut oil is worse for you than butter, lard, and beef drippings.
Those claims have emerged following a new review paper from the American Heart Association (AHA), which talks about the role of dietary fats in reducing heart disease risk. Coconut oil got special notice in this review, and here’s why.
“A recent survey reported that 72 percent of the American public rated coconut oil as a ‘healthy food’ compared with 37 percent of nutritionists,” states the AHA review.
“This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.”
Indeed, coconut oil has been touted to promote weight loss, ease digestion, and even boost your metabolism. But given that coconut oil contains a whopping 82 percent saturated fat, it’s logical that it would actually fall into the category of not-so-good-for-you fats.
As we explained back in April:
“The reason we’re advised to avoid saturated fats is to do with blood cholesterol, the waxy stuff that can build up in your arteries. All cholesterol is not the same, though – there’s a distinction between ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Standard advice goes that if your diet has too much saturated fat – think junk food, cakes, processed foods, chips – LDL cholesterol can build up and increase your risk of heart disease.”
We typically associate saturated fats with animal products such as butter and lard, while unsaturated fat sources are things like olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
Coconut oil bucks this trend because it’s a plant oil with a very high saturated fat content, but it also has a complicated molecular profile – the various fatty acids in it contribute differently to blood cholesterol.
According to the latest AHA review, studies have shown that coconut oil does indeed raise blood cholesterol, both the LDL and the HDL kind.
But the researchers also point out that “changes in HDL cholesterol caused by diet or drug treatments can no longer be directly linked to changes in cardiovascular disease”, so what we really need to pay attention to is whether a food raises LDL or not.
Coconut oil does this, although that doesn’t mean it directly increases the risk of heart disease. But the indirect link between ‘bad’ cholesterol and cardiovascular disease is still there, so the review basically advises you to avoid eating coconut oil.
The thing is, it’s not like our understanding of coconut oil has changed overnight, as some media reports make it seem.
What AHA cares about is the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk via sound, evidence-based advice to the public. If they have scientific evidence to recommend you swap out some foodstuffs for others to achieve this goal, they will.
And the evidence is there – when people switch saturated fats with unsaturated fats in their diet, their incidence of cardiovascular disease goes down by about 30 percent.
“Researchers culled hundreds of research papers published since the 1950s, finding evidence supporting the AHA’s recommendation that saturated fat should make up less than 10 percent of daily calories for healthy Americans,” AHA says in a press statement.
In the end, this review really doesn’t change much in terms of dietary advice – if you like adding coconut oil to your diet, consider it a treat, and keep your consumption levels to a minimum.
“Evidence has accumulated during the past several years that strengthens long-standing AHA recommendations to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat to lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease,” states the review.
Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, cut back of processed foods, and try to avoid saturated fats to reduce your heart disease risk, opting instead for vegetable oils. And maybe leave the coconut oil for cosmetic applications – apparently, it’s a great hair conditioner.
The review has been published in American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.